November 1, 2021

Lesson 11: Making Progress

Lesson 11: Making Progress

Elizabeth Holmes gets a bad rap.

What did she do wrong?

Well, in a nutshell, with no experience or expertise she convinced a bunch of stakeholders to pour billions into a vaporware product that had no way of doing what she promised it could do…

…oops.

When I discovered her story several years ago, I thought to myself, “The nerve of that lady. What a lying psychopath. I hope she burns in hell.”

And then the next day I did the exact same thing at our Sprint Review…

…just on a much lesser scale.

I’m talking about the illusion we call “The ‘Making Progress’ Demo” during the stakeholder sprint review…

…and yes, when it comes to this particular demo, we are all lying psychopaths who deserve to burn in hell…

…it ain’t easy.

Like Elizabeth Holmes, you likely have the best intentions to create a real product. It all starts the same way. The project gets kicked off, plans get presented, commitments get made, and business strategies get formed, all supported by a PowerPoint template with some cool slide transitions.

After the kickoff when all the stakeholders agree that the slide transitions were indeed very cool, they leave it up to you to deliver the product as presented…

Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy…

…right?…

…right??????….

And so you immediately dive in and start working with your team to build your product. At this stage there is so much hope and optimism, so much inspiration and passion, so much pride and cockiness.

“I just got everyone to believe in my idea,” you think to yourself. “Correction … I just got everyone to believe in me.”

The thrill of megalomania and narcissism flows through your veins as if you are gaining Superman powers under the glowing rays of an earthly yellow sun.

Like Superman, the otherworldly powers you receive are bestowed upon you when the executive team designates your project as having received “the green light.”

Superman has the yellow sun.

Product Managers have the green light.

But regardless of the color from whence your powers originate, you stand tall and immovable, ready to conquer the world of product management, if not eliminate evil altogether. Overcome by emotion and self-aggrandizement, you rip open your business-casual button-up shirt to reveal the S of Superman scrawled across your puffed out chest.

“Dude, what are you doing? Put your shirt back on,” your colleague whispers to you, seeing nothing but an exposed, out-of-shape, and rather ungroomed chest…

…you receive a few emails from HR later on that day…

…you also receive an email from your colleague to subscribe to Manscaped.

This product management high continues for a while. And it isn’t until you start doing Sprint Reviews that you realize how much of a fraud you are. Based on what you told them, stakeholders expect demos of your product. They expect momentum. They expect results…

…oh yeah. There are a lot of expectations…

...none of which – you're starting to realize – you can deliver on...

…it ain’t easy.

The problem arrives when the honeymoon kickoff period wears off and it’s time to start showing progress. You suddenly realize that you don’t actually have anything real to demo.

Whenever the development team is in this situation, they will try to convince you that the most important thing to demonstrate is that you are “making progress.” The team doesn’t want to reveal the fact that they have no idea how to take this product to market in the scary world of production.

They want to delay that reality as long as possible.

So you capitulate to this concept of “making progress”.

And that’s how your path in the footsteps of Elizabeth Holmes starts. Like her, you learn that any skilled magician can pull off the illusion that “making progress” is the actual product itself.

“How do I demo the product at Sprint Review?” you will ask your dev team millions of times throughout your career…

…and 99% of the time you won’t be able to…

…well, at least not in the way of doing a demo of a real product.

“The code only works on this obscure local machine and only in this even more obscure development environment,” the team replies.

“And how do I get access to that?” you ask.

The team gives you a 45-page instruction manual of how to VPN into some ultra-secure development environment, which apparently has the same level of security that NASA uses to hide satellite imagery of the whereabouts of Bigfoot.

“Is this really how our users are going to access the product?” you think to yourself, but are too embarrassed to ask.

You finally figure out how to piece a demo together so that you can pretend your product is “making progress.”

On demo day, you get up in front of the stakeholders and demonstrate your product with such mastery and skill it leaves everyone in awe of the awesomeness of your totally awesome product. They heap comments of praise upon you and the team and the the impact this product is going to have on the business.

“Wow, this feels good,” you admit to yourself. “The dev team was right. All I have to do is demonstrate I am ‘making progress’ and perfect my salesmanship.”

You feel the urge to rip open your shirt again and reveal your Superman logo, but previous experience has taught you to restrain such impulses…

…you decide to save that exhibition for tonight in front of a full length mirror.

Sprint after sprint, you go through this dog and pony show…

…only that real dogs and real pony’s would be infinitely more valuable to the organization.

Ok.

Let’s pause now.

And let me ask you.

How are you any better than Elizabeth Holmes?

All she did was perfect “making progress” and was better at it than you or anyone else. She was the Super Wonder Woman Man of The “Making Progress” Demo…

…and you, my friend, are none of those things...

...compared to her...

...even though you try.

Here’s the lesson: don’t step in “making progress” bull crap. You need to demo more than “making progress.” Don’t let the dev team convince you to settle for “making progress” demos only available on their local machines. Product Managers are not here to make dev teams feel good about accomplishing nothing. You need to demo the actual product the way a user would use it. Make sure the dev team understands that you are a representative of the market and the business. The only thing that matters is a real product in the real world for real people…

…anything other than a real product is just a less perfected version of Theranos…

…and if you succumb to just “making progress” without ever delivering anything, then you are a lying psychopath who deserves to burn in hell.